By Christopher Greig

The NBN constitutes one of the largest predictable market disturbances in recent history for Australian businesses.  For Australian retailers, the difference between success and failure in the post-NBN world will depend on how they harness the potential of the NBN to raise their levels of customer service. Retail executives need to wake up to these seismic industry changes and make NBN for customer service a priority for the boardroom.

Unlike a year ago, the development of a national fast broadband network no longer politically dependent; moreover, its rollout will impact most multi-site businesses within a year. By June 2015-2016, NBN Co expects a third of Australian homes to have NBN access. Macquarie Telecom expects this rate of coverage will be dramatically higher for businesses at around 60 per cent.

NBN implementation has the potential to help – or hinder – every aspect of business, and most executives already agree. According to Alcatel-Lucent’s Smart.Digital.Connected report, 80 per cent say digital economy participation needs executive and board focus for strategic planning. Since all businesses and their customers will have to transition over to NBN sooner or later, making it a topic of C-level discussion is necessary to avoid being caught out by the rapid speed of the rollout or advances made by competitors.

Once retailers start having impactful conversations about NBN, they can start driving action in three main areas of potential benefit. Firstly, they can use the NBN to radically improve customer service, in both pre- and post-sales communications with new online-based services like video sizing for fashion retailers. Second, they can drive improvements to logistics by adding more data points and communications channels to the supply chain. Finally, they can reposition their corporate strategies to manage new assets and risks resulting from the increasingly digital business landscape.

To do this, they need to consider which service providers can offer the best counsel and capabilities to take advantage of the NBN, rather than blindly remaining with incumbent providers based on their perceived stability. Immediate discussion at the top levels of retail is the only way to enable this sort of rapid, concerted action.

Getting the business ready
So how can retailers improve their NBN readiness? Small and large retailers alike should focus on removing impediments which might limit their ability to keep up with ongoing improvements to the NBN, and deploy technologies that consistently improve customer experiences throughout the retail process. Contracts with IT providers should allow for technology refreshes when NBN updates occur, while technology deployments should be forward-compatible to leverage enhanced speeds with minimal upgrade costs.

Macquarie Telecom conducts annual technology refreshes to provide multisite clients with progressive access once the NBN reaches their various areas; retailers can consult NBN Co’s rollout schedule or Macquarie Telecom’s NBN Business Ready online portal to determine a more accurate timeline for their readiness strategies. As mentioned earlier, executive-level discussion is critical in ensuring that limitations in one area of retail activity don’t hinder broader use of NBN.

Freedom and equality
Smaller retailers and those with a regional presence look set to be the biggest winners from the NBN. Nor are gains restricted to online-only retailers:  according to a 2010 Access Economics report commissioned by Macquarie Telecom, more than 70 per cent of businesses expect the NBN to allow faster product delivery to market, while almost 80 per cent believe it will offer greater diversity and depth of offerings. Retailers must consider how NBN can improve core areas of practice like delivery and customer decision-making processes, not just providing new online sales channels.

Retailers who don’t adapt now will end up falling behind in market penetration, productivity, and profits. This disruptive shift which will continue to trigger change at the fundamental level of retailing: focusing on boosting customer service, competing on a global scale, and developing digital-ready supply chains and user interfaces which go beyond the bricks-and-mortar store.

The pace and comprehensiveness of those changes will ultimately determine the winners and losers from the NBN’s deployment: a combination of clear leadership and attention to technical detail offers businesses the best chance of drawing a winning hand.

Christopher Greig is the  group executive of Macquarie Telcom.